Updated: Oct 30, 2018
Author Jenn Mishra
This week I talked with conceptual fine art photographer, Claire Rosen, about her unique style and tried to get her to divulge some of the magic behind her fantastical photographs.
When I asked Claire to describe herself as photographer – her elevator speech – she laughed, “Currently, I am making pictures of animals eating dinner.” The words she used to describe her images were: surreal, fairy tale, and Victorian influenced – all apply to Claire’s images.
What I really wanted to know was how she created the photographs in her Fantastical Feasts series. This is a series of 55 images that Claire made during extensive travel over the last 6 years of animals (ranging from the common to the exotic) at a fantastically laid table. I was stumped; not knowing how much was staged or created in Photoshop. She assured me that these were actual animals being photographed at a real table, but the best poses and expressions are composited together to create the final image with the help of talented retoucher, Becci Manson of The Post Office NYC.
"Each photograph is a bit different depending on the animal. Logistics are worked out in advance with the animals’ caretakers and a strategy is formed on the safest way to approach the photo shoot. The number of animals varies depending on what I can get access to and if they can be together safely.
The table is set and the animals are invited to eat . They are allowed to do whatever they are going to do. Everything in the photo happens, just not necessarily at the same time."
Claire was reluctant to tell me more.
“The first thing everyone wants to know is how I do it. I think focusing on that takes away a bit of the magic. I want people to be transported to a more whimsical place and to be thinking about our relationships to these creatures – not logistics”
What Claire did tell me was that these photographs are not big budget affairs with big production crews. Sometimes she has an idea and it’s months before she can bring the elements together to execute the concept, other times it’s a matter of hours. The Lar Gibon feast, the second photo she took in the Fantastical Feasts series, is a case in point. She was in Ko Lanta, Thailand on vacation and noticed the animals, found a restaurant which lent her a table, bought every banana from every vendor on the island and within hours, the photo was created.
She is often alone, or with one assistant, or the animals’ caretakers. Typically, not a lot of money is involved in the production. She emphasized that, “any idea you have you can figure out how to do it.”
The project has a conservation agenda, as Claire hopes these images will encourage viewers to consider those in the animal kingdom more humanly. A small donation from every print sale will be made to an animal related charity.
Claire wrote a book Imaginarium: The Process Behind the Pictures to help other photographers get inspired and achieve their vision. What the book is not about is how she makes her own work. She wants to emphasize the creative process and encourage others to make their own body of work.
“The best thing for artistic practice is self-reflection - pulling out what you are drawn to and what you want to communicate with your work. Think about what you want to spend your time doing? Photography is a vehicle for an interesting life."
When I asked Claire how she integrates photography into her own life, she laughed and pointed me towards her Instagram page @followthemouse LINK The Traveling Mouse is a way for Claire to have fun with her photography. While others might bring a stuffed toy or cardboard cutout, Claire brings a rubber mouse mask – and the appropriate wardrobe to go with it.
"I try to make the most out of every opportunity and take advantage of all of my resources. It’s important to me to be able to play, have a project that is easy, and around the things that I am doing anyway. The Traveling Mouse is fun for me. I put the rubber mouse mask in my purse and pull it out when I find a place that’s visually interesting. It’s the catalyst I need to take the time to explore places. It’s a funny way to be a tourist; I can interact with people in an unusual way, with a certain level of humor that I wouldn’t have without the mask.
And it is a low demand project, the shoots take about 5 minutes, and sometimes they are even done with a cell phone. My suitcase has gotten a bit heavier - as I am packing for 2 - but being more conscious of my outfits is really the only planning that goes into this project.
Sometimes my students say they don’t have the time to do a project. I think there’s always something interesting you can do, that fits into your life that won’t be very time consuming. You should always have something small that’s fun and gives you joy – so you remember not to take yourself too seriously."
Claire started developing her aesthetic style early. Strongly imprinted on her style are childhood influences like: children’s illustrated books with anthropomorphized animals running around like The Wind and the Willows, trips to the Museum of Natural History, the MET and the Big Apple Circus in NYC. That and her mother’s love of the Victorian era all contributed to her visual library.
She admits that she always had a fairy tale approach to her photography. She never wanted to photograph what was around her, but would rather dress up her sisters in her back yard. These photos formed the early foundation for her fairy tale work.
Looking back at her early work, Claire notes:
“The solid threads have been there all the time. It took self-reflection and hindsight to make connections and recognize the influences.”
Claire notes that her photography has always been a bit therapeutic for her. It was a way that she, as an “angst ridden teenager” could channel all of her energy. It is not always just about clicking the camera shutter:
“It was the adventure of finding the things. Putting everything together. Sourcing locations, learning about history, meeting unusual and amazing people in epic beautiful places. I find building the whimsical world I want to exist in invigorating. It’s the way I want to spend my time.”
Claire referenced a quote by Joseph Campbell that summed up her feelings:
“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”
For Claire, a successful photograph is one that elicits an emotional response and makes the viewer think of the world in a different way. It’s a photograph that lingers and doesn’t tell everything. It makes you think about it longer. By this definition, Claire’s photographs are highly successful. They make me laugh and look carefully at the image. There is always something more to find in one of her photographs.
I was fascinated by Claire's Fantastical Feasts series, but she has other just as compelling images in her other series. Her fairy tale images especially create a sense of another world and the photographs in her series Nostalgia: A Study in Color is a unique take on still life.
Claire's photos create a sense of wonder and a world apart – they are truly the work of a photographic magician.
Purchase Claire's book Imaginarium: The Process Behind the Pictures
** This post may contain affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on my links.
Article Written by Jennifer Mishra
Jennifer Mishra is an American travel photographer born in Colorado and based in the St. Louis metro area. She has a background in classical music and academia. She is the founder of PhotoYoga. Her photos are published at Wits End Photography or follow her on Facebook or Instagram.
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